“Saddle Up!”

A blending of function and art.


The American cowboy is not only a universal symbol of the American West, but he is also a symbol of the American spirit.

His gear—hat, chaps, boots, spurs, saddle—are as much apart of his makeup as is his can-do attitude, a temperament that is embodied in the words for sucking up your pain and doing what has to be done: “Cowboy up!”

B. Byron Price, in his book Fine Art of the West, recounts the history of cowboy equipment, from its Spanish roots to today. Em-bellished with historical images and photographs of the finest modern collections of Western gear, the book is a visual feast.

True West is proud to present a selection from Price’s book on the history of the Western saddle.

The rising economic importance of the western range cattle industry and the steady flow of farmers into the post-Civil War West stimulated an unprecedented demand for quality saddlery and harness. The develop-ment of a railroad network and tanning facilities and the availability of a greater number of skilled craftsmen, many of them Mexican and European immigrants or eastern transplants, also hastened the growth of the saddle-making industry in the trans-Mississippi West. Lower labor, leather, and saddletree costs played crucial roles and enabled western saddle makers in such centers as St. Louis, Omaha, Denver, Cheyenne, and San Francisco to wrest the saddlery market away from their East Coast competitors by 1875.

Craftsmen in these and other com-munities began to supply cowboys with heavy-duty stock saddles weighing as much as forty pounds and designed to withstand the rigors of life on the open range. In the 1870s saddle architecture evolved rapidly from the simple mochila housings and single-cinch styles of the past into heavier and more elaborate double-rigged creations bearing two cinchas and separate skirts, jockeys, and fenders. Trendsetters also tinkered with the size, shape, and configuration of saddletrees, and by the latter part of the decade, inventors in Texas and Colorado had strengthened some types with metal horns and forks. During the 1880s distinctive regional styles, based primarily on structure and rigging rather than ornamentation, developed in California and Texas and on the Great Plains.

Because they were made of thick skirting and subject to hard use, stock rigs did not lend themselves to the decorative leather fringe, cloth braid and embroidery, and decorative stitching prevalent on the soft leather saddles of the late nineteenth century. And while a few cowboys rode “kaks” made of black leather, there was never much demand among range riders for saddles with dyed skirting, which tended to fade when exposed to the sun and prolonged wear.

Cowboys with an artistic bent sometimes added their own dec-orative touches to their rigs, forming simple designs with brass nails and tacks or trimming skirts and cantles with rattlesnake skin or bearskin. Most, however, preferred the look and feel of saddle leather that had been hand-carved and stamped. Besides lending a decorative effect, stamping, also known as “sharking” or “tooling,” tended to compress the fibers of saddle skirting, thereby adding to its durability. Some makers believed that stamped and carved saddles wore as much as 50 percent longer than plain ones. One old-timer claimed to have stamped leather so deeply that it “could be used for a door mat without wearing out.” Stamp work also shed water more easily than slick skirting.

Malleable when dampened, tanned cowhide with a soft, fine grain lent itself to carving, stamping, and embossing in high relief. The quality of such embellishment, however, depended on the type and prep-aration of the leather as well as upon the skill of the artisan. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, California tanneries began to pro-duce commercial quantities of a superior oak-tanned skirting favored by stock saddle makers throughout the West. Possessing a white, velvety grain, California leather wore better than other varieties and was especially conducive to stamping and carving. Successful saddle stamping, wrote one observer in Harness magazine in 1889,

depends upon having leather in the condition to hold the creases made by the tool, and not to draw out lines already made. There is something in the skirting leather tanned on the Pacific coast which specially fits it for embossing....the grain is so flexible that when once creased, the line cannot be removed.

Before the embellishment process commenced, however, makers cut out the various parts of the saddle from a side of leather, avoiding material that was marred by brands or “flanky,” meaning thin, weak, or wrinkled. After scouring the flesh side of the pieces with a stiff brush, pumice, and water, the craftsman left them to dry in the shade or covered them with burlap, so they would not darken in the sun.

Properly “sammied” (moistened) leather was soft and pliant and, if well tanned, retained moisture uniformly over the entire surface. Because no two pieces of skirting responded in the same way to scouring, experience was...

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